The secluded district of Kinnaur is studded with towering peaks, high altitude valleys, glaciers and fast flowing rivers. The breath-taking beautiful district is sparsely populated with about 77 villages and no major urban centre. The arid, dust-covered, snowcapped slopes in the Indo-Tibetan regions of Kinnaur, Spiti, and Lahaul are the stuff adventurers’ dreams are made of, offering sublime mountainscapes, twisting roads, and fascinating Tibetan Buddhist communities with atmospheric gompas (monasteries). Negotiating the rough, sandy, drop-off ledges of the Hindustan-Tibet Road (bizarrely enough, known as National Highway 22) is an action-packed art in itself. The impossible road is made all the more unnerving when buses, trucks, and jeeps headed in the opposite direction seem to appear out of nowhere, and landslides frequently disrupt routes entirely. Although the spectacular scenery is undoubtedly the highlight of any trip through Kinnaur and Spiti, there are also marvelous monuments, including some of the world’s most intriguing Buddhist complexes (such as the World Heritage Site of Tabo Monastery in Spiti), as well as high-altitude villages that seem to cling to the sides of mountains or balance on the edges of sharp cliffs.
Ultra-budget-conscious travelers undertake the journey in state buses that rely on luck as much as faith to reach their destination, while bornto- be-wild adventurers do it on the back of a motorbike. We highly recommend you rent a jeep and driver—the heftier the jeep (a sturdy TATA is your best bet), the better your chances of actually enjoying the adventure. Most of the villages can be explored on foot, and the region lends itself to trekking (see “Staying Active,” earlier in this chapter). For one-stop shopping, we highly recommend you utilize the services of Banjara Camps (see “Visitor Information,” above), which offers most of the best lodging options in the area and can arrange your entire jeep safari. INNER LINE PERMITS Foreigners may not travel through the zone closest to the Tibetan border without first obtaining an Inner Line Permit from one of several government offices in Himachal. It’s a fairly easy, if laborious and frustrating, process (taking anywhere from 3 hr. to a whole day); you will need your passport, three passport- size photographs, and two copies of both the main page of your passport and your visa, before heading for the SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate) office where you complete an application form. The best place to apply is Recong Peo—the SDM’s office is located in the Deputy Commissioner’s Building near the town’s bus stand, One way of dealing with the slow pace is to apply and then collect your papers the following day after overnighting in beautiful Kalpa nearby. It’s a good idea to phone ahead to ensure that the SDM office (& 01786/ 222253; Mon–Sat 10am–5pm) is open on the day you plan to apply.
Heading east out of Shimla, National Highway 22 takes you to Narkanda (2,708m/8,600 ft.), a ski resort (Jan–Mar) where you can take in excellent views from Hatu Peak. From Narkanda, a 16km (10-mile) detour off the main highway brings you to the vast apple orchards of Thanedar, heavy with fruit in summer. (Samuel Stokes, an American who settled here in the early 1900s, is credited with bringing over and planting the region’s first apple trees.) From Thanedar you must backtrack to Narkanda, then continue north past the commercial town of Rampur, a former princely capital. The road descends towards the raging Sutlej River, following its contours until you come upon the dusty village of Jeori. From here, a twisting, hairpin-heavy climb leads to the charming village of Sarahan (2,165m/7,000 ft., 6 hr. from Shimla), which enjoys spectacular views of the snowcapped peaks across the river. Trapped in time, Sarahan is the site of the famous pagoda-style Bhimakali Temple. You can overnight in Sarahan.
The next morning, follow the same road back down to Jeori. At Karchham (Baspa Junction), you’ll take a sharp U-turn and follow the steep dirt tracks of the Sangla Valley , through which the raging Baspa River flows. You won’t find any flashy accommodations, but comfortable Banjara Camp, 8km (5 miles) beyond, is an excellent place to spend a night or two, and serves as the perfect base from which to explore the remote hamlet of Chitkul (3,450m/11,000 ft.). This Banjara Camp (see “Visitor Information” above; Rs 3,800/$86 double, includes all meals and taxes; open Apr–Oct) comprises 17 comfortable tents with attached toilets and running water, in a gorgeous open meadow (wildflowers in full bloom July–Oct) alongside the Baspa River, beneath towering Khargala Peak. Make use of the opportunity to pick the brains of Banjara founders Ajay or Rajesh for details of the best treks in the area. Both are wonderful hosts, with plenty of ideas for what you can do (besides lying in one of the inviting hammocks overlooking the river). A selection of tasty Indian and Tibetaninspired dishes is prepared at mealtimes and served in Makuti, the thatched dining area; but there’s nothing stopping you from picking up fresh fish from a local farm (the area is known for trout fishing) and having the kitchen team cook it for you. From Sangla, you will have to double back to National “Highway” 22 to continue east towards Kinnaur’s main town of Recong Peo (2,670m/8,500 ft.), where you must complete the paperwork for your Inner Line Permit, which will permit you to enter the zone closest to the Tibetan border. While waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, spend the night in the village of Kalpa (2,960m/9,400 ft.), well worth a visit for its crisp, clear air and view across the valley of the majestic Kinner-Kailash massif; it’s a 30-minute drive into the mountain above Recong. Note, too, that Kalpa suffers from interminable power failures, so make sure the manager supplies you with candles. Set out early the following day; once you pass the first Inner Line checkpoint at Jangi, you will notice dramatic changes in the landscape, as fir trees give way to rock and stone sloping up toward distant summits and down into the raging River Sutlej. The journey through Inner Line territory takes you past the off-limits turnoff for 5,500m-high (17,600-ft.) Shipki-La Pass, which heads into China. Nako Lake and its village lie farther along; beyond the turnoff for Nako, the road attains its most sinister aspect as you enter the notorious section known as the Maling Slide, heavily punctuated with precipitous drops—an ideal place to strengthen your faith in the divine. Upon reaching the final Inner Line checkpost at Sumdo—some 115km (71 miles) from Recong Peo and 363km (225 miles) from Shimla—the road heads northwest into the alien landscapes of Spiti. The Buddhist town of Tabo (some 6 hr. from Recong) is the most frequented stop in Spiti, and for good reason. We recommend you stay at Banjara Camps’ Tabo Retreat (see “Visitor Information” above; doubles from Rs 2,800/$64; Apr–Oct). Architecturally, the building echoes Ladakhi style: simple, clean, comfortable, en-suite guest rooms have small, private balconies. Ask for an upper-level room facing the monastery. Omperkash Thakur is not only an efficient manager, but something of a culinary wizard, so there’s plenty of carefully prepared food available. Many visitors traveling on a tight budget stay at the rest house in the monastery run by monks. It has simple guest rooms with attached bathrooms, all arranged around a peaceful central courtyard. You will most likely have to arrive here to arrange a room—phones in the area are notoriously unreliable. Not far from Tabo is the village of Dhankar , which hugs the side of a hill and offers breathtaking glimpses of the surrounding mountains and valley below—a visit to the precariously perched monastery makes for an excellent diversion. Visit Dhankar on your way from Tabo, and then continue on to the town of Kaza. As the administrative headquarters of Spiti, Kaza offers little excitement, but unless you really want to spend an entire day on the road, it’s a useful base from which to visit the beautiful, fortresslike gompa of Ki and the high-altitude village of Kibber . From Kaza, either head for Manali to catch your breath, or travel directly to Leh. North of Spiti is Lahaul . Linked to the rest of Himachal by the Rohtang Pass, dotted with villages of flat-roofed houses, fluttering prayer flags, and whitewashed chortens, Lahaul is cut off from the world by heavy snow for 8 months of the year. This mountainous region attracts adventurers to its Buddhist monasteries, mountain passes, spectacular glaciers, and high-altitude lakes. Visitors traveling by road to Leh in Ladakh, farther north, pass through Lahaul.
Bhimakali Temple Chanting and music blast from the temple loudspeakers very early each morning and again in the evenings, transforming Sarahan village into a place that literally resonates with spirituality. Combining Hindu and Buddhist architectural elements, the main section of the temple comprises two pagoda-style pitched slate-roof towers. Built from layers of interlaced stone and timber, the towers rise from a courtyard around which are living quarters and a small museum with a collection of weapons and other unusual ritual objects and relics. Had you visited the temple 200 years ago, you might have witnessed one of the annual human sacrifices that kept the gods satisfied; today, animals suffice. The tower on the right was damaged in an earthquake a century ago, and the presiding deity was relocated to the tower on the left. Climb the stairs to get to the main shrine with its family of idols. Bhimakali is the main deity, while Durga, Ganesha, and even Buddha are all in attendance. The priests don’t speak English, but it’s worth taking part in the small puja (prayer) ceremony, so bring your rupees. Morning and evening prayers are scheduled but don’t always take place.
This main town of Kinnaur district is set at a height of 2759m about 12km from Recong Peo, surrounded by vineyards, apple orchards, chilgoza pines, cedar and deodar forests. It affords a panoramic view of the majestic Kinner Kailash and came into prominence when Lord Dalhousie proposed the construction of Hindustan – Tibet Road in the 19th century. Places worth seeing are the Narayan Nagini temple and Buddhist monasteries. The thickly wooded Lippa, located nearby on the banks of Taiti stream is known for its Buddhist monasteries.
Recong Peo, the headquarters of Kinnaur district is perched at an altitude of 2290 metres amidst scenic surroundings. There is an ancient gompa – Hu-Bu-Lan-Kar established by Rinchensang-po (950-1055) and a new gompa commemorating the venue of Kalachakra initiation conducted by Dalai Lama in 1992. The sight of Kinner Kailash from here is awesome.
The beautiful ‘gateway to Kinnaur’ lies 176 km from Shimla. It is known for majestic Bhimkali Temple, surrounded by snow clad mountains. The sacred shrine is revered by the Hindus and Buddhists. A Pheasant Breading Centre and stadium are also worth seeing.